Re: emperors old clothes

From: Keith Henson (
Date: Tue 18 Mar 2003 - 02:41:59 GMT

  • Next message: Grant Callaghan: "Re: Dennett article on post-modernism"

    At 04:55 PM 17/03/03 -0800, Dace wrote:
    > > From: Keith Henson <>
    > >
    > > At 04:29 PM 15/03/03 -0800, Dace wrote:


    > > >Memes can't pervert their hosts. Perversion is strictly psychological.
    > > >People are perverted, not memes.
    > >
    > > I don't see the above as consistent. It is close to saying a string of
    > > in a virus can't pervert the functions of a cell and make the cell (and
    > > consequently you) sick.
    >Hi, Keith.
    >Let's say you come down with a cold. Three weeks later you're infected with
    >the exact same rhinovirus that got you before. Now that your immune system
    >recognizes this particular virus, it quickly disposes of the germ before any
    >harm is done. Let's say you were in favor of the war against Vietnam. By
    >the time it was over you had learned your lesson. Thirty years later you
    >were opposed to another aggressive war before the first shot was even fired.

    Your original statement was that memes *can't* pervert their hosts. Sure some people are immune to certain infections or memes, but that does not mean that genes/memes in general can't make hosts sick or cause the host to waste their life on some stupid meme. (Pervert as a verb has the meaning of turning from an intended or original purpose. If at least one of the original purposes of humans is to reproduce, then the Heaven's Gate memes that induced men to whack off their nuts and later suicide was certainly a perversion!)

    >If you're immune to national narcissism, the memes that carry its message
    >can't infect you.
    > > >Memes just promote themselves (and thereby
    > > >crowd out competitors).
    > >
    > > This is close to saying computer viruses only replicate and don't cause
    > > harm. Certainly *some* of them (like the last really fast spreading one)
    > > don't have a destructive payload and the damage they do is mostly related
    > > to clogging the nets and denying services. But some will erase your hard
    > > drive.
    >Again, you have to be willing to let the virus in. If you think that by
    >opening an attachment to an email you will win a fabulous prize, then the
    >virus will gain power over your computer. The perversion lies in the person
    >who lets the virus in (and the person who created it) not the virus itself,
    >which simply does its job.

    The last major virus that got loose didn't depend on humans at all, which is part of how it managed a doubling time of 8.5 seconds. And while the ultimate cause was something stupid a programmer did at Microsoft and some virus coder did somewhere, the proximate cause of perverting all those computers from the data base task they were supposed to be running to spreading the virus was this virus.

    > > >Mental causation goes on at both the memetic and
    > > >personal levels. In fact, it's carried on at three levels: memes,
    > > >and groups of people. Each level has automonous, causal power, and each
    > > >level can become pathological and dangerous.
    > >
    > > While I agree that there are levels, I don't see memes as having
    > > power. DNA information only effects the world when it is in an
    > > where it can be replicated and transcribed. Memes have to be in a brain
    > > before they can cause real world effects.
    >Genes are self-promoting, and so are memes.

    In a sense yes. Due to the effects of an evolutionary causal selection loop, people can use the language of purpose to describe genes as being self-promoting or selfish. But you should keep in mind that this kind of language is a shorthand for describing a causal loop, and that genes and memes are not conscious entities that can be either "self-promoting" or selfish.

    > > >As Dennett has finally
    > > >realized, the attempt to use memetics as a way of "explaining" culture
    > > >without resort to conscious agency can only discredit the emerging field
    > > >study.
    > >
    > > I never realized that anyone was trying to use memes to explain
    > > culture.
    >My understanding is that memetics is intended to provide a scientific
    >account of human culture. I think it can indeed do so but only in the
    >context of psychology, including group psychology.

    I think memetics will get more out of evolutionary psychology. Look it up.

    > > Culture is the sum of information that is passed from person to
    > > person and generation to generation by non-genetics means. Memetics is a
    > > way to understand the differential survival of parts of that information,
    > > but culture itself is explained by its usefulness to genetic
    > > survival. (Try surviving without even chipped rocks!)
    >Not being a genetic reductionist, I can't agree with this.

    I am fairly sure you agree that humans (and their genes) would have the devils own time surviving without culture. Memes are just elements of culture and some of them are darned useful.

    > > > > (iii)a "natural half life" exists for dominant old memes and they have
    > > > > fall below a certain strength before they are dislodgeable
    > > >
    > > >"Half life" is a chemical concept and has no bearing on biological
    > > >evolution. So, it probably doesn't make a very good analogy for
    > >
    > > It is more a mathematical term, and if you can graph the decline of a
    > > it would make sense to use it to describe the point where a meme that was
    > > 100 percent accepted had fallen to 50% accepted.
    >The difference is that a radioactive particle is guaranteed to degrade by
    >half in a certain amount of time, whereas a meme's duration is open-ended.

    A particle does not degrade by half in a time period, it either decays or does not. No half way measures. :-) Now a large collection say 10 exp 32 will experience about half of them decaying in a half life for that isotope. But when you get down to a small number of atoms, the duration of at least one of them is somewhat open ended as well. In practical terms it won't matter if 50 years from now if one person in ten thousands thinks that ulcers are caused by stress, the meme will be functionally extinct.

    > > >Incidentally, the resilience of not only useless but actively harmful
    > > >is the only way to study the subject scientifically. This is because the
    > > >existence of helpful memes can be ascribed to the ordinary attributes of
    > > >ideas, which passively replicate on the basis of their value from one
    > > >to the next. The point of memes is that they're "selfish." They
    > > >self-replicate, just like genes. When an idea that's clearly harmful is
    > > >also impossible to eradicate, then we know we're dealing with a meme.
    > >
    > > I agree with you that actively harmful memes (hurting humans or their
    > > genes) are extremely useful in the study of the subject. But I don't
    > > it is the only way to study the subject. The spread of useful new memes
    > > and harmless ones also provides examples. Take the meme that stomach
    > > ulcers are caused by Helicobacter pylori. It was difficult for that one
    > > get widely accepted because it ran into the established (though
    > > unjustified) meme that stress caused ulcers.
    >We don't need the memetics model to account for the recognition that ulcers
    >are caused by bacteria. Someone had an idea, which he or she communicated
    >to someone else. Since the idea turned out to be true, now lots of people
    >believe it. No need for "selfish" units of culture propagating themselves.
    >But the prior belief-- that ulcers are caused by stress-- is not only false
    >but harmful. The extreme difficulty of uprooting this belief can be
    >ascribed to the autonomy and resilience of the belief itself. Of course, if
    >bad ideas are memes, then every idea is potentially memetic. That the
    >bacterial explanation of ulcers is a meme can only be demonstrated

    I don't see why. Memes *are* ideas that spread beyond the person who thought them up. Good idea, bad idea, or inaccurate idea, they are still memes if they are being communicated and spread to new people.

    The reason we use "memes" instead of replicating idea or replicating information pattern is that meme is *shorter.* It conveys in a short word the connotation that the idea being discussed "has a life of its own," sharing in the character (and descriptive mathematics) of replicators in general.


    I appreciate your thoughts on the subject.

    Keith Henson

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